Monday, February 6, 2017

Offering Support Through Pet Loss: What We Don't Want to Hear

Lowell and I have been very fortunate to have shared at least a decade and a half with many of our pets.  This also means that in the last couple years, we have had to cope with the aging, illness, decline, and ultimately death of a few of our pets, sometimes in close succession.  And as I write, we are preparing for the inevitable passing of our oldest pet, our cat River.

We have many kind friends and family members who have given us lots of empathy and support as we have faced these passings.  We also have been on the receiving end of sometimes awkward comments that, while I know were meant well by the speaker, have come across not quite so eloquently.  Acknowledging that it is hard to know what to say in these situations, I thought I would share my reflections on some things that - I believe - those facing a loss may not want to hear, in hopes that it might help others who are struggling to find words for such situations.

1) "XX age is really old for a cat/dog/etc."

I know my pet is old.  I am grateful that I have had so much time with him.  That does not make his imminent passing any easier to take, and is not a comfort to me in this moment.  In the case of River, I have had him almost half of my life at this point.  Lowell and I have had him our entire married life together.  Memories of wedding planning, showers, sending invitations, etc. all have kitten River in the backdrop.  If anything, the idea of being without him for the first time in seventeen years makes me feel even more heartbroken.

(Side note: This comment is also especially not helpful if I don't consider that an old age for that species of animal.  When our cat Milo died at the age of ten, suddenly and unexpectedly from a genetic heart condition, I felt prematurely robbed of many years I thought we would have together.  I consider ten to be middle-aged for a cat, and his loss was traumatic - I did not at all agree with sentiments that he had a long cat life.)

When an animal is ill, this comment also seems to imply ". . . so of course he's going to die."  Again, trust me, I am acutely aware that time is running out, and I fear any sign of illness in my geriatric pet could be the end.  Please don't remind me.

Which leads us to . . .

2) Please refrain from any comments or judgments about my decisions whether or not to pursue diagnosis and treatment.

(And please don't worry yourself about how much I may choose to spend.)

The eye rolls (at best) or harsh criticisms (at worst) for doing more testing, attempting treatment, or giving palliative care have been about the least helpful response I've received, and yet are remarkably common.

How much you do for an ailing animal, especially as they near the end of their life, is a personal decision influenced by a lot of factors, including of course, economic feasibility.  I have access to good vet care, we plan for such expenses in our budgeting, and we are willing to at least explore what we can reasonably do for our pets even when it doesn't look good.  And the reality is, sometimes even very old pets DO get better.  Not everything is fatal.  When Jade at age 14 was hospitalized with aspiration pneumonia, some people acted like we were crazy for treating him.  Recently when 15-year old Django spent three days unable to even stand (due to what we believed to be - and was - a fairly common temporary geriatric condition), I saw the shaking heads when I told people I had reason to assume he was still going to improve.  Happily the naysayers were wrong - we got two more years with Jade post-pneumonia, and Django is back to running his happy laps in the yard every morning.

Please also leave decisions about my animal's fitness for a particular intervention between me and my veterinarian.  When Jade had surgery at the age of 12 to make his breathing easier after his laryngeal paralysis diagnosis, I had many friends comment that they would never "put their pet through" such a surgery, as if my doing so was somehow cruel.  Jade had one kind-of-unpleasant day, then four more years of a good quality of life thanks to that surgery.  I think if he had been able to have a say, he would have voted for that option.  Again, he was a good candidate for the procedure, and there are many legitimate reasons an owner might choose differently, and that is their prerogative.

Look, I know that the answers I get might not be good.  I know that an attempted treatment might not work.  But never take away someone's hope.  We aren't necessarily looking for miracles here.  Maybe all I am hoping for is one more night with my pet curled beside me comfortably.  Please don't judge what value that night might have to our family.

And finally, the big one . . .

3) When or whether to euthanize is our decision.

That's it.  The only input we may want is from our veterinarian, and what we know in our hearts based on our relationship with that animal.

This one I admit really gets my hackles up whenever I hear someone comment on another owner's decisions about euthanizing.  Nobody wants to see their pet suffering needlessly, and nobody wants to lose quality time either.  With both Jade and Tristan, who were clearly ready to go, I nevertheless agonized for days afterwards about whether we could have waited even another day.  As I watch and wait with River now, I am again agonizing about trying to find that magical balance.  And that balance perhaps doesn't really exist, and so we do the very best we can.  Some of us may judge differently than others, on either end of the spectrum, but only we can make that choice.

Don't give me platitudes like "maybe he's saying it is his time."  We know our own pets better than anyone else does.  We are listening to them.  If I feel there is still a spark of life in them, if I feel they are still enjoying things, and if I feel their symptoms are being managed well enough to keep them comfortable, please believe me.  Likewise, if I no longer feel that keeping him alive is the humane thing, don't question that (and don't tell me about the miracle drug/herb/crystal/etc. that is going to fix him).

Let's be clear what this decision means - we are not putting anything "to sleep."  We are ending a life.  There may be no more significant decision we make in our pet's lives.  Let me make it in the way I can best find peace with afterwards.

Please understand that my interest in sharing these observations/thoughts is not to criticize anyone.  Death and mourning are not easy topics for any of us, and we all fumble with words at these times.  I also acknowledge that it is not in my typical nature to put together a list of "don't's" and I apologize for what may be a negative tone.  Blame it on my grief.  We know you can't make it better, though you really wish you could, and understand we don't expect you to.  Share a fond memory of the pet. Acknowledge the importance pets have to us and how hard their loss can be.  Just express sadness.  That's fine, and we are grateful for that.

As humans, we want to problem solve and make things better, and the great tragedy of life is that some things can't be fixed.  All we can offer each other at these times is our compassion and empathy, and that will do.